This month is Amnesty UK’s Football Welcomes Refugees Month of Action and to promote what is an important cause, we spoke to Nations United.
Nations United were established in 2017 by Sanctuary in Chichester (SIC), a volunteer-led organisation dedicated to making Chichester and surrounding areas a welcome place for refugees and asylum seekers.
Football Welcomes began as a weekend of activities, also in 2017, with 30 clubs participating. By 2019, the number taking part reached almost 180, making it the biggest celebration of football and refugees the UK has ever seen.
The team is currently led by Duncan Barratt who took the role on two years ago, a decision he certainly hasn’t regretted.
“I retired a couple of years ago now and used to work with Tony Toynton who looks after Sanctuary in Chichester (SIC). As soon as I retired he asked if I’d be involved with their projects.
“It’s been a great decision to make because I’ve loved every minute of it. I got involved with Nations United about a year ago when the guys managing it had moved on. It’s been rather stop and start because of the pandemic but I’ve still enjoyed all of it.
“It’s a passion for football but also a passion for helping the guys. They’re guys who haven’t had the best of circumstances over the last few years so it’s an opportunity to get out on the football pitch and do what they love doing.”
Nations United is made up of players from countries including Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Albania. Two players in particular that have benefited immensely from the programme, are Jelani and Asme, from Eritrea, East Africa. For Jelani, it gave him the opportunity to play the sport he loved with likeminded people.
“I was one of the first people to start at Nations United when I was already involved with the different things at Sanctuary in Chichester.
“The idea suddenly came up that, as an asylum seeker, we could have a place where we can meet and socialise with people.
“A lot of people like me, love football but don’t have the opportunity to do it. I shared my idea with Roger (former SIC Chairman) and he was really behind it and now we have Nations United.”
Asme added: “I’ve made a lot of friends as a result of Nations United at a time when I was new in Chichester. The experiences I’ve had I don’t think I would get anywhere else.”
What’s more, Jelani is keen to tell us the importance of people such as Duncan within the community: “Duncan has been brilliant for us to be honest. To hear about these kinds of future plans is great and we always knew he’d deliver this for us, and we couldn’t do it without him.
“He came at a point where we were struggling to find a coach but it’s going perfectly now and I’m very pleased about that.”
What’s inspiring about this project is that even someone like Duncan, who is a retiree, still has the motivation to make a difference and help people.
He tells us of the future plans going forward: “We’d like to get Nations United involved with FA affiliated clubs, but we have to be careful. We have a couple of teams that we regularly play with and we also play in the Powerplay league and if you go back to the first season we did that it was interesting to see how the players dealt with the new environment.
“So, the plan is to get affiliated and do some 11-a-side matches, because the boys love playing that. We’ve been speaking to Jade (Development Lead here at the Sussex County FA) about a coach that came through at Chichester Uni who has been working with us and how we can get a few of our players to start some coaching qualifications.
“It gives these guys a chance to make new friendships and be part of a team. What’s more we work with Sanctuary to get them their Maths and English qualification, so it goes beyond just football.
“It always makes me smile when they turn up for their first training session and they’re quite timid and shy but as soon as they get their boots on and get on the pitch it’s a different story which shows how football is our universal language.
“I’ve seen people who first met here and are now good friends which is just incredible to see and will develop even more over years to come.”
Like a lot of charity organisations, SIC rely on a lot of support and fundraising, which comes with its challenges. Duncan tells us how they’ve overcame them: “We’re a charity that’s dependant on funding and we’ve got support from the Sussex Community Foundation and everything we do with Powerplay etc. we can only do through the support they give us.
“Of course, we need to continue with fundraising but for me, now, it is about working with different stakeholders like The FA and broaden our opportunities.
“We went to a tournament in London with about 15 other teams about a year ago, Nations United competed very well and got to the final and that’s the kind of thing we want to continue to be involved with.
“There have been obvious and practical challenges like getting people in the right place at the right time. Jelani and Asme speak good English and Arabic which means they can act as translators very well!
“In terms of Powerplay, it was about the boys learning to win and how they deal with getting pushed around by bigger blokes. Jelani will tell you that there was one or two that were quite volatile when they first joined us and struggled to deal with those sorts of matches.
“We can’t do any of this without the support we get from Sussex Community Foundation etc. that’s how the players get to training, get to matches and have their travel paid for. To this day though I’m still frightened to death that I’ll turn up to matches and I’m the only one there!”
It’s been a tough journey for a lot of these players and Jelani beams with pride when talking about the journey they have been on: “I’m very proud of how far we’ve come. We had players come even from around Brighton, really wanted to play football but they couldn’t have a team because they don’t know the area, people, so to see these players come from Brighton, Worthing and other places, it makes me really proud.”
It’s quite incredible the impact such a simple idea has had on these individuals. The universal language of football which has brought them all together has not only provided them with a form of education, but also given them a social life that would have originally been difficult to come by.
Lastly, Duncan added: “The friendships are great, and I think that’s down to how they learn the language, they’re not always sat in a classroom, they’re out on a football pitch with English-speaking coaches, so they’re learning in a fun environment where they’re far more engaged.”
For more information on Sanctuary in Chichester, please contact:
Sanctuary in Chichester